Title: Before We Leave
Developer: Balancing Monkey Games
Publisher: Balancing Monkey Games
Genre: Strategy / City-Builder
Available On: PC
Official Site: BalancingMonkeyGames
Release Date: May 8, 2020
It can be hard to keep a cheery attitude facing the destruction of our planet. Pollution plagues the rivers, industry decimates animal populations, and the temperature gets a tad bit hotter every year. It’s all grim stuff. Before We Leave, though, recognizes these dismaying events and incorporates them into a surprisingly bright and optimistic strategy game. Balancing technological progress with its toxic side-effects proved to be an engaging gameplay loop that also got me thinking about the issues surrounding the sanctity and health of our Earth.
A New World in Before We Leave
Before We Leave begins with civilians (charmingly called peeps) emerging from a bunker after years underground. Earth is now habitable again, and I am soon tasked with building shelter for my naive peeps. After that, I work on building a library, which allows new technologies to be researched, and an explorer’s hut, both of which are crucial and harmonious. Progress is quick in the beginning, and it doesn’t take long to move from basic shelter to more complex buildings.
The research collected by the explorer’s hut comes in three forms: red, green, and blue. There are no specific qualities attributed to each, but each color can only be used to research specific technologies. In the beginning, I only needed green research. But, once I moved to my second island, I discovered red research, which was used to acquire new technology itself and in combination with green research.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I needed to ensure my first island is successful. To achieve success, I needed access to every nook and cranny of the island. Since you can only build buildings and facilities next to roads, I soon began crafting a web of avenues and boulevards. This was easy since roads are instantaneously created and free to produce. Such ease allows Before We Leave to maintain a steady and engaging pace. I never had to wait for my peeps to build a series of roads to then build a necessary building. It allowed me to address demands quickly and efficiently.
After building shelter, building roads, and establishing farmland, I began working on industry. The rocky hexagons that exist on every island have resources that can be used to mine stone, iron, etc. These, of course, prove to be crucial. The farther you get into the game, the more you will need steel, tools, iron, to build necessary buildings and devices. But, isolated on my first island, I soon found that I didn’t have access to certain resources.
Expansion and Trade In Before We Leave
Using the materials I did have, I built a colony ship and took out to sea. The beautiful round, hex-abundant, and hollow planet turns as I navigate its seas. Soon, I hit land and establish a colony on a desert island. At first, I’m disappointed; how fertile and rich can land like this be? But deserts have resources that other islands do not, such as sand and oil. Without sand, I can’t make glass. Without oil, I can’t make fuel.
This diversification of resources across different islands makes trade vitally important to success. The only way my first island was able to progress past huts and sea-bound ships was through trade with other islands. The only way my other, newer islands succeeded was with the support of the original colony initially sending food, water, and supplies.
Almost everything can be traded. I found myself trading rarities most often, such as glass, fuel, etc. An absolutely necessary item to trade is research. Certain islands have certain types of research, but all the research must be in the same place to discover any new technologies. Ensuring that blue, red, and green research all heads to the same colony is very important.
Soon, after thoroughly colonizing and working the entirety of my planet, I began looking to the stars. I start repairing a broken spaceship that lay derelict in the middle of my second colony. This was a massive undertaking, requiring the resources and efforts of every peep on the planet. Sadly, Before We Leave started to drag significantly at this point. Progress came to a standstill as my peeps labored indefinitely on a spaceship that required massive amounts of rare and limited resources. My fuel was on a different island than the one with the spaceship. This meant I had to produce one or two units of fuel slowly, send it by ship over to the other island, and wait for the workers there to apply it to the spaceship. Rinse and repeat. This slowed things down significantly, taking some of the fun out of the excitement associated with space travel.
But actually landing on another planet was exciting, though, at least for a time. Sadly, you basically encounter more of the same. There are islands with their own biomes, and all islands must work together to succeed. You do need to establish trade via space travel in order to ensure the success of your new colonies, but the mechanic isn’t any different from establishing trade routes for sea-bound ships.
It is a very cool feeling to jump from planet to planet, expanding infrastructure and settling issues on various islands. It helps that at a certain point islands become self-sufficient. This means I didn’t feel anxious about focusing on one island on a single planet. The game would notify me if something went wrong, but that was rarely the case. It was satisfying to watch an island function without my interference, knowing my planning and execution made it possible.
Turn That Frown Upside Down
One element of Before We Leave that slowed things down and that gave me a lot of trouble is happiness. Each individual peep has varying levels of happiness. How happy they are is affected by space, overpopulation, food, water, and pollution. If peeps are happy, they work hard. If peeps are unhappy, though, their efficiency is severely diminished.
Pollution is an interesting and dynamic mechanic unique to Before We Leave. It demands that you consider seriously where to put industrial and toxic facilities. On most of my islands, I designated the rocky, mountainous hexes as pollution sites, shoving everything toxic up there, away from civilization. This worked well, and I appreciated how pollution affected how I formatted my civilization. Before We Leave made it look possible to balance human existence with environmental health by incorporating that balance as a game mechanic. It obviously isn’t a roadmap to the solution, but its optimistic approach to the topic brings attention to the issue.
However, on my first island, pollution was a bigger issue. As the colony grew and I ran out of space, some homes, wells, and farmland were located in polluted space. This made the peeps unhappy, which I totally get; I’d be unhappy, too. My problem was that no matter how many pollution cleaners I placed throughout the island, homes and resources would still be polluted and peeps would still be unhappy. By all means, the cleaner was a useless facility that just used up a substantial amount of water, which also required that more wells be built. Giving the lack of space on the island, I would often have to sacrifice buildings and facilities to build wells so that all my peeps could still drink.
Overpopulation was an issue that eventually plagued every island I had. I had no idea how to fix it. Even on islands where I had vast amounts of open space, I would still get a notice that it was overpopulated. Building new homes just led to a bigger population, and no matter how many farms, wells, etc. I built, I couldn’t get the notification to go away. Since I supposed a culling was out of the question, I was stuck with this issue on every island I had. And again, overpopulation leads to unhappiness, which meant everyone was working much slower due to an issue I couldn’t solve.
Adorable Peeps, Beautiful Planets, and Menacing Space Whales
The art style of Before We Leave is incredible, and certainly a huge draw of the game. Civilization VI is an incredible game, but I don’t find that it visually captivates me. Before We Leave certainly does. The planets you colonize are beautiful, littered with hexagonal clouds. The fact that the planets are hollow until you discover every inch of the planet is a nice touch. It’s an artistic choice that makes it feel that there is so much to discover.
The day and night cycle really brings the planet to life. On one side of the planet, it will be day; on the other, it will be night. This makes them feel very real. It also makes for a cool effect that, when scrolling from one side of the planet to the other, the sun creeps around the curvature of the planet, making for a beautiful image of the advent of morning. Moments like these are short, but they leave an impression.
The peeps are adorable. They look like little dolls, darting around, working hard. Each has their own names and personality quirks that you can discover if you take the time to click on them. You certainly won’t memorize these names and be able to associate it to a specific peep, but it does bring them to life a bit.
Then, there are the space whales (yea, that’s right), which are the antithesis both of the tone and style of Before We Leave. Once I colonized at least one planet, I got a notification that something large and terrifying was spotted in the far distance. Ok, I thought, that’s ominous. Then, it came and attacked my planet by sucking up and eating resources.
I was actually a bit disappointed that the whale didn’t do more damage. It honestly didn’t hurt my colonies enough to warrant repairs, unlike the storms in similar games such as Banished. But the image of the whale baring down on your relatively small planet from across the cosmos is a surprisingly frightening experience in an incredibly peaceful and calm game. The menacing soundtrack here certainly doesn’t help.
Speaking of, the soundtrack deserves some recognition. I never turned off the music as I do with many strategy games after a certain amount of time. Tracks are upbeat and entertaining, matching perfectly the aesthetic of the game. Also, the detail that the music only plays when near your colonies is charming. The farther away you get, the quieter the music gets. It is also neat that towns often have different songs playing, making the soundtrack dynamic, constantly changing as you move from one town to the next.
Verdict: Before We Leave is an incredibly charming, relaxing, and addictive experience. I loved watching my towns grow, eventually becoming self-sustaining. I enjoyed traveling to and colonizing distant planets, although the build-up to leaving the first planet does drag the pace down. The pollution mechanic is unique and engaging, although how it affects the happiness of peeps makes for a no-win situation that proves to be very annoying. Ultimately, though, it is just refreshing to play a non-violent strategy game with a positive message. Your only objective is to build the best colonies you can, reducing the impact pollution has on your planets. That in of itself is enough motivation to keep playing, the hours whizzing by. Before We Leave is the calming strategy game that stands out among the strategy genre library. No threat of nuclear war, no spies, and no death. It is just the peaceful, optimistic, and engaging game we need in a time like this.
- Addictive Gameplay Loop
- Beautiful and Charming Aesthetic
- Space Whales, Duh
- Pollution Mechanic Interesting and Impactful
- Great Trade System
- Great Island Diversity
- Space Whales Don't Do Much Damage
- Pollution Cleaners Don't Work
- Overpopulation Unsolvable
- Unhappiness Slows Everything Down Too Much